21 December 2020

Down with the professionalists – or how to make populists redundant

By David Landsman

With the departure of Donald Trump, you can feel hopes rising that the challenges of 2020 have proved too much for populism, an ugly parenthesis is over, and “normality” and “moderation” are being restored. Not so fast.

To understand what’s being felt on both sides of the Atlantic and to see why it’s premature, think about Dominic Cummings’ masterful slogan, ‘take back control’. He identified that the left behind felt that they had been abandoned, that as citizens they deserved better from their country but that they had lost any influence over their fate.

Since the referendum, we’ve witnessed precisely the mirror image. Remainers who believe that as the successful educated people who make the country successful had lost control over it and deserved better for their achievements. Put another way (and with apologies for the crude generaliations on both sides), if Leavers were the East German factory workers whose prospects vanished with the fall of the Wall, Remainers were the Communist Party officials whose achievements no longer conferred the benefits they thought they deserved. 

In their discontent, both sides failed to understand the other. And they still do. But both communities are needed. Ask what makes the UK a (mostly) prosperous and successful country. Some would reply it’s the City of London, with its brilliant minds from all over the world, contributing so much of the tax which keeps the rest of the country going. Others might suggest it’s the law-abiding majority who make the UK a largely calm and benign environment for doing business. Both – and many other answers – are true. Insisting that only the brightest and best really matter is not only insulting, it’s patently untrue.

It’s a mistake to think of populism as the test tube creation of an evil genius: “if only Trump (or Farage, or whoever) hadn’t…, it would all have been fine”. Nor is it only a response to economic hardship: the signs were there. It’s a reaction to an equal and opposite force, which I’ll call the “professionalists”, the unacceptable face of meritocracy, the consequence of an increasingly complex society creating technocratic elites creating structures which – often with state regulation a poor substitute for market disciplines – provide them with an ever greater producer surplus. David Goodhart’s “Anywheres” define themselves less by being in mid-air than by their achievements.   They see the world as a canvas on which they pursue their professional activities. Their fellow citizens become mere clients, “done to” rather than agents.

There’s nothing new, of course, about elite overreach and a popular, or even populist, reaction. The difference is that this elite seems blind (maybe wilfully so) to the problem. It sees itself as “progressive” and “liberal”, proven right by “objective facts”. They’ve convinced themselves that all that’s needed for a better world is for them to be able to pursue their professional ambitions. Paradoxically, the more meritocratic society becomes, the more acute this arrogance becomes. Noblesse oblige is out. Once you’re convinced that everything you’ve achieved is on your own merits, you have every right to impose your will on the “uneducated”, even if your qualifications may look better on paper than in the real world.

We’ve seen plenty of professionlist tendencies during the coronavirus pandemic, but what is more disturbing is the de haut en bas conviction, whether under the guise of public health or “build back better” that the experts – that’s to say the professionalist producer interests – know what’s best for all of us. The most glaring example is UBI. I’m not thinking about the economic cost, rather the blatant instrumentalising of the population: keep them fed so we can go about fulfilling our ambitions. It’s rather like the private zoo owner who defends him himself from charges of cruelty by saying “I agree the cages are tiny. But I give them food and water each day and the vet comes regularly. What’s the problem?”

Whatever the future of Donald Trump or any other of the “populists”, the need for a corrective to professionalism hasn’t gone away. It doesn’t have to be crude and divisive though. What happens next depends very much on how far the pendulum swings. Politicians have a choice: act as tribunes of the people, defending the national interest against vested interests – as Margaret Thatcher did – or think and behave as professionalists. Those who are prepared not to listen to their professionalist friends will be doing society a greater service.

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David Landsman is a former Ambassador and now a company director and consultant.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.